Throttling Democracy

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The truncated monsoon session of Parliament has been, in every sense, the worst session of Parliament ever held, except probably the one during the emergency in 1976 that adopted the 42nd Constitutional Amendment meant to facilitate an authoritarian regime.

What happened in the Rajya Sabha, when two of the Bills related to agriculture were being considered, was a mockery of parliamentary democracy.  After a curtailed discussion, the Deputy Chairman railroaded through the two Bills violating all parliamentary procedures and rules.

The demand to put the statutory resolutions  disapproving the ordinances to vote was ignored.  The resolutions to refer the Bills to a Select Committee were not allowed to be moved and a division taken.  Finally the demand for division on the various amendments moved by opposition members was rejected and the Bills adopted by voice vote. The government sensed that it had no majority to carry through these legislations which led to this highhanded behaviour that violated a fundamental rule that if even one member requests a division then a vote has to be taken by counting the numbers.

These flagrant breaches of procedures and rules naturally evoked protests from opposition members.  The response of the government was to get eight of the members suspended from the House for a week.  Many of the members suspended were those who had sought to assert their right for a division, such as Elamaram Kareem and K. K. Ragesh of the CPI(M).

This effort to muzzle the MPs led to an unprecedented day and night dharna by the eight suspended MPs in front of the statue of Gandhiji inside the compound of Parliament. The opposition boycotted the rest of the session in the Rajya Sabha which ended on September 23.

The authoritarian behavior regarding Parliament was earlier evident when question hour was scrapped for the session.  The government could not explain how the pandemic induced restrictions like physical distancing in seating arrangements and wearing of masks would detract from members putting questions to the Minister concerned. The elementary right of the members to put questions and hold the government accountable was denied.

The dismissive attitude towards Parliament was seen in the way answers to written questions were given.  The government declared that it had no data on deaths of migrant workers who had travelled to their homes during the pandemic period.  The government also stated that it had no data on the number of persons in detention centres in Assam, while it had given those figures in Parliament during the winter session of Parliament last year.

Another aspect of the curtailment of parliamentary functioning was the refusal by the government to send in all the Bills introduced in the session to the Standing Committee, or, refer it to a Select Committee, which is the normal practice on legislations which require in-depth discussion and scrutiny.

The eleven ordinances promulgated by the government in the past six months were all replaced by Bills which have been passed. Except for one, none of the ordinances were related to any urgent matter connected with the extraordinary situation created by the pandemic.  The government has found the ordinance route convenient to bypass Parliament. The concerned legislation to replace the ordinance is not being referred to the Standing Committee on the grounds that such a Bill has to be passed by Parliament within six weeks of  the  promulgation of the ordinance.

The muzzling of Parliament is part of the wider assault on democracy and democratic institutions.  There is a wide-ranging attack on the rights of citizens; the use of draconian laws like UAPA and NSA; the suppression of dissent by invoking the sedition clause; the targeting of minorities, intellectuals and activists as `anti-national’; and intimidation of the media. The new labour laws which have now been adopted strip the working class off their basic rights, including the right to job security and restrictions on strikes. There is a closing off of all the democratic spaces in the country.  This is the way democracy dies.

But this demise of democracy can be resisted and halted if the people, mainly the working people, are mobilized to protect their hard-won rights.  The opposition to the agriculture-related laws in Parliament got galvanized because of the mass protests by  farmers in Punjab and Haryana.  Even a longtime ally of the BJP, the Akali Dal, quit the Union Cabinet on this issue. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), a party which is not known to have opposed the Modi government on many policy questions, came out in opposition; even the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) did not support the Bills wanted them to be sent to a Select Committee.

The anti-labour laws which were pushed through in Parliament, with the opposition members absent, will also meet with determined opposition and a united working class movement.  This Parliament session has witnessed a naked attack on farmers and workers for the benefit of the corporates and big business.  When the people start moving against these measures and come together to defend their rights, it will open the way for a concerted and united movement of all the democratic forces. That is how the throttling of democracy will be thwarted.